The Godfather Part III, X-Men: The Last Stand, Spider-Man 3 — cinematic history is rife with gratuitous third installments that make viewers wish the filmmakers had simply stopped after the first two outings. Not surprisingly, when I walked into the theater to see Kung Fu Panda 3, it was not with the highest of expectations. I must confess, however, that by the end of the movie I was pleasantly surprised. While it may not quite live up to its illustrious predecessors, it’s certainly entertaining enough to merit a trip to the theater, and perhaps—dare I say it—even additional sequels.
The plot sounds simple enough: Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is leaving his kung fu students at the Jade Palace in order to go on a personal journey of discovery, leaving Po (Jack Black) in charge. Though Po’s first day as substitute teacher is an undisputed failure, this does not deter Shifu- who simply tells his disciple, “If you only do what you can do, you will never be more than you are now.” Meanwhile Kai (J. K. Simmons), an ancient warrior who apparently was like a brother to Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), has returned from the spirit realm and threatens to destroy all that Oogway created. Po learns of Kai’s return shortly after being reunited with his biological father (Bryan Cranston), and decides to accompany his father back to the secret Panda village to master qi, learn the life of the panda, discover what it truly means to be the Dragon Warrior, and improve his teaching skills along the way.
As you can see, the simple plot seems rather complex if you are unfamiliar with the Panda’s past. Though the film is directed primarily at a young audience, it is still necessary to be acquainted with the first two films to fully appreciate what’s going on. Like the first two installments, this latest one features spectacular animation that is gorgeous on the big screen. In fact, this may be one of the few areas in which Panda 3 surpasses its predecessors. The mountainous landscapes, in particular, are quite striking, and the animation style used in the depiction of the spirit realm is also a visual highlight.
Despite the laudable animation, there are a few scenes that feel superfluous, like they should have been bloopers instead of part of the movie. For instance, a scene featuring Po and his father Li playing together in the Jade Palace contributes virtually nothing to the story and is really only good for a few chuckles. Just because it’s a movie about a panda doesn’t mean it has to be full of fluff, and they could have done a better job trimming the fat.
Is this threequel chock-full of cheap shots to get a laugh out of the kids? Yes, but the story is interesting enough to entertain their parents, too. Most of the character development takes place between Po and his two fathers: his adoptive father, Mr. Ping (James Hong) and his biological father, Li. The fathers vie for their son’s attention but eventually realize Po’s new relationship with his biological father doesn’t mean his adoptive father is any less important to him. There are some touching moments as Po gets to know his biological father, though these are partially hindered by the film’s incessant gags.
Beyond Po, Mr. Ping, and Li there is almost no character development. Most disappointingly, the villain Kai fails to come across as either threatening or sympathetic. Past villains, such as Tai Lung, both posed a real threat to the hero and had sympathetic motives. All Tai Lung wanted was Master Shifu to be proud of him. But Kai is merely comical and vaguely vengeful. If they had done more with his apparent brother-like relationship with Oogway and the story of their falling out from Kai’s perspective, he could have been a much more compelling and understandable villain.
Unfortunately, other than perhaps being the first DreamWorks film about a two-father family, Panda 3 doesn’t really break any new ground. While it touches on some themes like lost cultural traditions, for the most part it is about finding yourself, the same message that drove the first two Kung Fu Panda movies. At this point, the message feels rather trite—even for a kids’ movie. The film fails to take Master Shifu’s advice: “If you only do what you can do, you will never be more than you are now.” Panda 3 is fun to watch and has a few good messages, but doesn’t venture far beyond what the franchise has done before. It will likely not be as well loved or remembered as its predecessors, but it’s worth seeing, and certainly good enough to allow for future, hopefully more inventive, sequels.
If you’ve already seen all the good movies of December, then this is one of the few worthwhile films in the cinematic landfill of January.